Entries by Posted by Linda Rink (65)


Andres Simonson: Estonians everywhere, make some шум (noise)


If not maybe for a fortuitous NATO membership, is it too far fetched to imagine a Russian-backed war of aggression and influence in Estonia instead of Ukraine?

Шум is Ukrainian for noise, and Estonians need to make some.

It is wonderful to read about all the remarkable advances in Estonia’s recent past. Arvo Pärt wins another award in music. Estonian films generate buzz in the international community. Estonia is praised for a most competitive tax system. Heck, Estonians even invented the latest gruelling sport certainly poised to overtake football in global popularity – sauna marathons.

But what will it all mean if the Putin regime is continually given a pass to play the cold-blooded, calculating villain on the world stage? As if in a theatre, we watch the drama unfold from comfortable seats in the distance and merely assume an unidentified protagonist will appear to keep this band of anti-heroes from achieving their twisted ways.

But, there is no Luke Skywalker in sight to lead righteous Jedis to vanquish the malevolent emperor Putin-Palpatine. And besides, this is not a scripted screenplay where the author leads us into fictional turmoil only to raise our spirits during the last act when the clouds break and the sun shines brightly once again. This is tangible nonfiction at its worst. Regardless, do we even want a bloody battle as a remedy? Of course, reasonable folks don’t.

And that is why every Estonian, everywhere needs to make some noise. Not only altruistically to assist our friends and Western value counterparts in Ukraine, and by extension, liberal democracy as a whole. But, at the same time, because is it too far fetched to imagine the Russian backed war of aggression and influence spreading to Estonia, NATO membership notwithstanding?

Putin is the proverbial bully on the playground. He takes lunch money from one, and nobody says a peep. Then, with what little fear there was evaporating further still, he decides to trip the kid running for the swingset. Again, there’s not a teacher in sight to scold the goon. There is no fear of consequences, of reprisals. So, positively reinforced, he carries on with his ways. He invades Ukraine with soldiers and artillery, and concurrently, invades the world with misinformation to the contrary. He kidnaps an Estonian security official from sovereign territory, conveniently and embarrassingly timed with a visit to Estonia of a NATO-touting president, Barack Obama. Thumb to nose and fingers extended to his foreign counterparts, he grows bolder still.

This is not a sabre-rattling call for military action. Not necessary. Rather, this is a call for grassroots campaigning, for contacting political leaders to demand that they publically call the Ukrainian crisis what it is – a direct invasion by Russia. Demand their insistence for increased sanctions. Ensure they are willing to provide peripheral support to Western-aligned national Ukrainian reformers and foreign Ukrainian diaspora groups. Even if the rate of incoming Russian manufactured artillery shells has slowed of late, the Putin regime is fighting against Western democracy in much more subtle, but equally detrimental, ways.

Write to your local newspaper, or the like, and inform your fellow citizens of the undeniable dangers emanating from the shady interior rooms of the Kremlin. Participate or organise formal protests, because voices strengthen in numbers. Spread this post and other pertinent articles via social media. Yell out of an open window. Whatever works, just make some noise… loud enough that our political and philosophical allies in Ukraine hear us and the agents of Putin’s nefarious inner circle begin to take further notice.

Because applying pressure only works if the valve is fully open.

  • If you’d like to read a powerful and transparent analysis on Putin’s actions in Ukraine, read the Atlantic Council report.
  • For US readers, visit the Estonian American National Council (EANC) website, which hosts a collection of articles regarding the Eastern European crisis.
  • Also for US readers, subscribe to news feeds issued by the Joint Baltic American National Committee, Inc. (JBANC), which issues timely and informative action alerts. JBANC is also sponsoring a seminar on Baltic-Nordic security on 4 December in New York.
The opinions in this article are those of the author.



U.S. Presidential Candidates on Russia, Ukraine, and the Baltics

Erik Lazdins is a political science graduate from Grand Valley State University, and works at the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC). 

 THE TRANSATLANTIC CONTENDERS: The 2016 U.S. Election on Putin’s Aggression 

October 29, 2015
In a little more than a year, citizens of the United States will go to the polls and vote for their next president. Central and Eastern European Americans represent roughly 22 million of those voters and make up important voting blocks in key states like Ohio, Michigan, California and New York.  
Russian aggression is a major issue for these voters, as many of their descendants fled to the U.S. as refugees following World War II from countries that were run over by the Soviet Union. Today, in light of an again antagonistic Russia, its strings pulled by the mass manipulator Vladimir Putin, the 2016 presidential candidates must take a stance on U.S.-Russia relations.
In recent elections, Russia has not been viewed as a significant foe. President Obama notably shrugged off Mitt Romney’s comment that Russia was the United States’ greatest geopolitical threat. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” Obama said in a 2012 presidential debate. However, the geopolitical climate has changed.
Although Russia’s role in Eastern Ukraine has recently taken a backseat due to Russian adventurism in Syria, nevertheless, this important issue is still highly relevant. Russia still poses a threat to our NATO allies in Eastern Europe. It has violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity by illegally occupying Crimea, and continues to perpetuate a violent conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
President Obama has taken significant steps to crack down on Russia’s actions. The U.S. imposed crippling sanctions, sent economic relief to Ukraine, provided defensive support, and bolstered military exercises in the Baltic countries. These progressive steps, however, should only represent a beginning. Ukraine needs much more in order to effectively defend its territorial integrity, and the Baltic states need more to secure their independence as our allies in NATO.
U.S. foreign policy has been debated by the Republican and Democratic candidates this fall. In the first two GOP debates (August 6 and September 16), the Baltic states and Ukraine were mentioned. The state of U.S.-Russia relations was touched upon in the first Democratic debate on October 13.
The stage for presidential candidates is still very packed. Since the last GOP and Democratic debates, Scott Walker, Rick Perry and Lincoln Chafee have dropped out of the race entirely, while Jim Webb has made his exit from the Democratic primary. On October 21, Vice President Joe Biden stood with President Obama to announce that he will not run for the Democratic nomination.
This leaves the stage to Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, John Kasich, Bobby Jindal, and Jim Gilmore. For the Democrats Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O'Malley remain. The number of candidates still in the race is staggering.
Many of these candidates have made other issues more central than foreign policy in their campaigns. Bernie Sanders has focused on issues of economic inequality, Mike Huckabee on family values, and Trump on immigration. However, in terms of transatlantic relations, the contender candidates that stand out the most have been Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Carly Fiorina.
Even so, we cannot overlook the fact that Trump and Carson significantly lead the GOP polls, and Bernie Sanders ranks second among Democrats. The Joint Baltic American National Committee analyzed the U.S.-Russia policy statements and platforms of all eight of these contenders. 
Donald Trump leads the Republican polls at 32%, according to an October 21 ABC News poll, and he has led the GOP race since July. Although Trump touts himself as the “most militaristic” candidate, he takes an extremely soft approach to Putin.
“I’d get along very well with Vladimir Putin,” Trump said during a press conference in Scotland at the end of July. “Obama and him, he hates Obama, Obama hates him. We have unbelievably bad relationships.”
Trump views Crimea as more of a European problem, and thinks that the United States should have better relations with Russia. He repeatedly expresses admiration for Putin’s leadership skills and often uses Putin as an example to criticize President Obama.
“In terms of leadership, [Putin is] getting an A, and our president is not doing so well,” Trump said in an interview with Bill O’Reilly in September.
This is not the first time Trump has made similar comments on Putin and Obama. He has called Putin a popular leader in Russia, and argued that Putin would respect him, if he were the president.
“Putin has no respect for our president whatsoever,” Trump said in a Fox News interview. “He’s got a tremendous popularity in Russia. They love what he’s doing. They love what he represents.”
In a speech via video link to the Yalta European Strategy conference in Kyiv on September 11, Trump echoed his foreign policy insights on Ukraine.
“With respect to the Ukraine, people have to band together from other parts of Europe to help,” Trump said. “Whether it's Germany or other countries, I don’t think you're getting the support that you need.”
Trump does not believe that Russia is entirely to blame for the downing of MH17, which resulted in the deaths of 298 victims. The Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down over Eastern Ukraine with a Russian-made BUK anti-aircraft missile in rebel-held territory.
"They say it wasn't them," he said. "It may have been their weapon, but they didn't use it, they didn't fire it, they even said the other side fired it to blame them. I mean to be honest with you, you'll probably never know for sure."
Although Trump went back on his comments, and said that Russia “probably” shot the flight down, he still expressed his reservations about getting the United States involved.
“We just can’t fight with everybody,” Trump said.
Recently, Russia has openly involved itself in striking against all enemies of the Assad Regime, which continues to barrel bomb its own people, helping to foster resentment and bolster recruitment for terror groups like the Islamic State. Trump believes that Putin should be more involved in Syria.
“When I heard they were going in to fight ISIS, I said, ‘Great, let them,’ ” he said.
Most recently, Hillary Clinton came out against Vladimir Putin in the Democratic debate in October.
“We have to stand up to [Putin’s] bullying, and specifically in Syria, it is important,” Clinton said. “I think it's important too that the United States make it very clear to Putin that it's not acceptable for him to be in Syria creating more chaos, bombing people on behalf of Assad, and we can't do that if we don't take more of a leadership position, which is what I'm advocating.”
In the past, Clinton has supported Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression. She broke with President Obama on his Ukraine policy, arguing that Ukraine deserves greater support than what it has received.
“It’s a difficult, potentially dangerous situation, but the Ukrainian army and ordinary Ukrainians who are fighting against the separatists have proved that they deserve stronger support than we have provided so far,” Clinton said.
Clinton clarified her stance on Russian aggression in Ukraine, in a speech she gave at the Brookings Institution in September.
“I have been, I remain convinced that we need a concerted effort to really up the costs on Russia and in particular on Putin. I think we have not done enough," she said. "I am in the category of people who wanted us to do more in response to the annexation of Crimea and the continuing destabilization of Ukraine."
In the same speech, Clinton discussed Russia’s power projection across its borders into other countries.
"We can't dance around it anymore. We all wish it would go away," she said. "We all wish Putin would choose to modernize his country and move toward the West instead of sinking himself into historical roots of tsar-like behavior, and intimidation along national borders and projecting Russian power in places like Syria and elsewhere."
Clinton has also made remarks on Russia’s attempts to intimidate its neighbors, particularly the Baltic states.
“What Putin did is illegal,” she said. “It’s not because we gave the poor little Baltic States NATO protection. And people need to say that, and they need to be very clear: This is a clash of values, and it’s an effort by Putin to rewrite the boundaries of post-World War II Europe. If he’s allowed to get away with that, then I think you’ll see a lot of other countries, either directly facing Russian aggression or suborned with their political systems, so that they’re so intimidated, they’re in effect transformed into vassals, not sovereign democracies.”
Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, has moved way up in the polls to second place, nearly doubling his support in the last two months. Carson is currently polling at 22% nationally in an ABC News poll, lagging behind Trump by 10%.
Carson does not have experience in elected office. Similar to Trump, he runs a campaign as an “outsider” candidate. This, however, means that Carson also does not have any foreign policy experience. This was evident when he was caught unaware of the fact that Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were members of NATO. Nevertheless, Carson has taken a hard line approach toward Russia. He calls for arming Ukrainians, so that they can defend their territorial integrity, and for the expansion of NATO.
“I would handle Ukraine in a very different way,” Carson said. “It was agreed that they would be protected, if something happened with aggression. Have we lived up to that? Of course we have not. And what does that say to our other allies around the world?”
Bernie Sanders has picked up a lot of steam in his grassroots campaign from the progressive left. Sanders focuses his campaign mostly on domestic issues like income inequality and corporate regulation. Nevertheless, he has taken stances on U.S.-Russia relations.
In the Democratic debate, Sanders argued that Putin would “regret” his aggressive interventionism.
“Well, I think Mr. Putin is going to regret what he is doing." Sanders said, "I think he is already regretting what he did in Crimea, and what he is doing in the Ukraine; I think he is really regretting the decline of his economy, and I think what he is trying to do now is save some face."
Sanders has not taken a particularly hard stance on Russia, other than to continue the president’s strategy of imposing sanctions on the regime. However, Sanders also emphasized that force should be the very last resort. It is unclear whether or not supplying defensive weapons to Ukraine qualifies as “force” in Sanders’ view.
“I would prefer to deal with a complicated issue in a measured way: serious international discussions about how we proceed, but force, force should be the last option we use,” Sanders said.
Marco Rubio made headlines when he portrayed Vladimir Putin as a gangster and thug in a foreign policy speech he delivered in South Carolina.
"Russia is governed today by a gangster," Rubio said. "He's basically an organized crime figure who controls a government and a large territory. ... This is a person who kills people, because they're his political enemies. If you're a political adversary of Vladimir Putin, you wind up with plutonium [sic polonium – ed.] in your drink or shot in the street."
In the last GOP debates, Rubio expressed his views on Russia, and emphasized what he believed was a desire for Russia to rebuild the glory of the Soviet Union.
“[Putin] wants to reposition Russia, once again, as a geopolitical force,” Rubio said. “He’s trying to destroy NATO. And this is what this is a part of.”
Rubio stands up for the Baltics, and believes that the United States should proactively step up its military presence in the region to deter Russian aggression. Rubio outlined his plan in a piece he wrote for the National Review in September.
“NATO should station more than token forces in member states bordering Russia, because Putin must learn that he cannot get away with doing to the Baltics what he has already done to Ukraine,” Rubio wrote.
Jeb Bush has criticized the Obama Administration’s “soft” approach towards Russia. Bush has taken a hardline stance on Russian interventionism around the world.
"How to deal with [Putin] is to confront him on his terms, not to create a more bellicose environment, but to simply say that there is going to be a consequence," Bush said in an interview with Reuters on Russian involvement in Syria.
Bush, like Clinton, views Putin as a bully. He calls for more robust military exercises in the Baltics, and to deploy NATO ground troops. Bush seeks to increase U.S. military presence in the Baltics to send a stronger message to Putin.
“To deal with Putin, you need to deal from strength,” Bush said. “He’s a bully, and bullies don’t — you enable bad behavior when you’re nuanced with a guy like that. I think just being clear — I’m not talking about being bellicose, but just saying, ‘These are the consequences of your actions.’”
Bush has advocated for greater U.S. involvement, including the possibility of sending lethal aid to Ukraine.
“I think we need to provide defensive military support, because it’s very hard to make the structural reforms necessary and grow the economy in a world where there’s a threat of further aggression,” Bush said. “That would be the first step.”
John Kasich is viewed as a more transatlantic candidate and has taken solid positions against Putin's aggression. Recently, Kasich argued for a no-fly zone in Syria, and suggested that the situation in Syria should not distract people from the crisis in Ukraine.
“Putin seeks to advance Russian interests in the region,” Kasich said. “Nor should we allow Mr. Putin to use the Syrian crisis to distract attention from his ongoing aggression in Ukraine.”
Earlier in his presidential campaign, Kasich criticized the Obama Administration for not supplying arms to Ukraine.
“For the life of me, I cannot understand why we are not giving the Ukrainians [the ability] to defend themselves against Putin and the Russians,” Kasich said on the trail in August.
In a statement made on Ukraine's independence day, Kasich reiterated the need for defensive weapons.
"Congress gave the President the authority help arm Ukraine—by large bipartisan majorities— but its requests to the U.S. for help have been denied," Kasich said in the statement. “This must stop and we must help Ukraine protect its independence. That means providing the anti-tank, anti-aircraft and intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance systems it needs."
Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard CEO, has come out as a particularly “hawkish” candidate on a number of foreign policy issues. Fiorina has repeatedly issued talking points on the need to bolster up the U.S. military presence in the Baltics. Fiorina expressed this during the second GOP debate.
"I wouldn't speak to Vladimir Putin. I would act instead, and do four things immediately," she said. "Rebuilding the Sixth Fleet, rebuilding the missile defense program, I would begin conducting very aggressive military exercises in the Baltic States, and I would arm the Ukrainians."
Fiorina, like many of the other GOP candidates, has attacked the foreign policy of the Obama Administration. She made repeated pledges to stand up to Russia militarily, economically, protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and bolster up the Baltics. She advocates for providing more consquences on Russian aggression in order to deter future violations.
“If you permit bad behavior, you get more bad behavior,” Fiorina said. “When we did not push back in anyway on Russia’s aggression into Ukraine, we get more bad behavior.”




NATO Approves Military Upgrades to Aid Members of Alliance



BRUSSELS — Rejecting charges of engaging in a Cold War-style arms race with Russia, the U.S. and its NATO allies approved military upgrades Wednesday that should help them come to the aid of a threatened alliance member faster, with better equipment and more firepower.

"We stand united in the way we are addressing the challenges we face," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

Meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and counterparts from Canada and NATO's European member nations ordered an increase in the strength of the alliance's Response Force, which was 13,000 at the start of 2015, to as many as 40,000.

They also added air, sea and special forces units to the force, which includes a highly mobile, multinational "spearhead" brigade of 5,000 ground troops the ministers ordered to be formed in February so NATO can reinforce any alliance member under threat within 48 hours.

Ministers also made it simpler and quicker for NATO generals and civilian officials to mobilize the force and bring it into action, Stoltenberg told a news conference. He said NATO will also develop more detailed advance plans to use in the case of crisis, and that a new joint logistics headquarters will be opened to help the NATO force deploy faster with the gear and supplies it needs.

Stoltenberg said the alliance revamp was in large part caused by Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, its alleged and continuing military incursion in eastern Ukraine, its ability to speedily mobilize large numbers of troops, and its escalating rhetoric about use of nuclear weapons. But the NATO chief said the alliance's sole goal is to protect itself — not to threaten Moscow.

"We do not seek confrontation. And we do not want a new arms race," he said. "We want to keep our nations safe. And faced with many challenges from many directions, we need to be prepared."

Russia too has been increasing its military capacities. Last week, it said it will add over 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles this year alone. In early December, it flexed its muscle by airlifting state-of-the art Iskander missiles, which can be fitted with nuclear or conventional warheads, to its westernmost Baltic territory of Kaliningrad.

They were later pulled back, but the deployment clearly served as a demonstration of the Russian military's readiness to quickly raise the ante in a crisis.

On Tuesday, Carter announced during a visit to Estonia that the U.S. will spread about 250 tanks, armored vehicles and other military equipment across a half-dozen of NATO's easternmost members that feel most at risk from Russia. Stoltenberg said the Pentagon chief also offered transport aircraft, air-to-air refueling capability, special forces and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to support NATO's Response Force — a high-end contribution Stoltenberg said "completes the picture of a truly trans-Atlantic effort to reinforce our collective defense."

Earlier, Carter told reporters traveling with him that the Obama administration still hopes to work with the Russians on issues such as the Iran nuclear talks, the fight against the Islamic State group and efforts to bring about peaceful regime change in Syria. But Carter said NATO must adapt its deterrence and response capabilities "in anticipation that Russia might not change under Vladimir Putin, or even thereafter."
In September, the U.S. announced a plan to spend up to $1 billion on various actions to reassure European NATO members. The funds are paying for increased U.S. troop rotations, more exercises, prepositioning of military equipment and upgrading of airfields and other infrastructure.

Since possessing an ultra-fast reaction force is pointless if NATO's 28 members can't quickly agree in an emergency on how to use it, defense ministers also decided on procedural changes to "speed up political and military decision-making," Stoltenberg said.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the alliance's supreme commander in Europe, will now have greater authority to put rapid-reaction forces on alert and assemble and prepare them for deployment, Stoltenberg said. But he said "political control" by civilian representatives of NATO's member nations, one of the alliance's guiding principles, will be maintained over the decision on whether to deploy troops or not.

The changes at NATO, which Stoltenberg called steps in its "far-reaching adaption" to a radically changed security environment that includes rampant Islamic extremism in the Middle East and North Africa and threats like cyberattacks, follow broad policy decisions taken by President Barack Obama and other alliance leaders in Wales last September, and come at about the midway point between that NATO summit and the next scheduled for July 2016 in Warsaw, Poland.

"Things over the last several years have gone at a dizzying pace, you might say," U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said this month in Brussels. "There has been more change than I can remember ever in a single two-year period, at least in the 34 years that I have been an observer on the defense scene."
Associated Press writer Lolita Baldor in Brussels contributed to this report.



EANC Responds to June 18 Boston Globe Editorial

The following response (in a slightly shorter version) was sent by EANC's President and Vice President to the Boston Globe on June 23, 2015. Scroll to bottom to read the Globe's editorial:

In a June 18 editorial, the Globe cautioned against allowing US heavy weaponry to remain in the Baltic countries, “on Russia’s doorstep,” noting that such a “move has little upside and a lot of downside.”  The viewpoint of Estonian Americans, however, is quite the opposite.  There is a lot of upside and little downside to showing Russia that the US is serious about upholding its pledge to protect its NATO allies.  

It is a quite a stretch to go from storing and protecting equipment to looking like NATO is building military bases on Russia’s border, as the Globe asserts Putin would think.  To take no action out of fear of what Russia might do or think is effectively playing into Putin’s hands.  Putin uses “diplomacy” only as a tool to achieve what he wants.  Stronger American leadership and action are the most effective counters to Putin’s tactic of stoking divisions among the allies.

We agree that that the US should bolster “ the bases we already have in Italy and Germany, expand NATO’s Rapid Reaction Force, and continue to engage in military training exercises.”  That, however, is insufficient to reassure the Baltic countries, as the Globe suggests.   The 150 US military troops now stationed in each of the Baltic States and in Poland, while symbolic,  are insufficient to repel a serious attack, and must be quickly augmented by adequately armed forces in case of need.  The more clearly are drawn lines of demarcation that cannot be crossed, the less likely to try would be those in the Kremlin wishing to expand influence in the “near abroad.” Placing military assets and troops in the Baltic region is a relatively inexpensive insurance policy against the world stumbling into another Ukraine-type situation in another part of Europe. 

Finally, blaming Ukraine for not adhering to the Minsk cease fire agreement - needed in the first place because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea - is somewhat disingenuous.  Ukraine should be given the weapons it needs to defend itself, for right now it is the front line in Europe’s defense.  As Estonian Americans, we are grateful for the support shown by the United States to Estonia, Eastern Europe, and Ukraine, and support additional measures to enhance their security.

Marju Rink-Abel, President 
Eric Suuberg, Vice President
Estonian American National Council, Inc.
Increasing US presence in Baltics has little upside
By The [Boston Globe] Editorial Board   JUNE 18, 2015

A MONTH AGO, there seemed to be a glimmer of hope that the conflict in Ukraine could turn a corner. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for four hours at a resort residence on the Black Sea. Both sides agreed that they would push for full implementation of agreements struck at Minsk, which include a ceasefire and more political autonomy for the Russian-speaking, rebel-held areas in the east.
But since then, tensions with Russia have spiked to alarming levels. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that he is preparing for a full-scale Russian invasion. Meanwhile, President Obama is considering a proposal to allow US tanks and heavy weaponry used in a training exercise to remain in the Baltic states, on Russia’s doorstep.
Unless the United States is really planning to go to war with Russia, such a move has little upside, and a lot of downside. Storing equipment there requires beefing up the infrastructure and security required to protect it, moves that would make it look like NATO is building military bases on Russia’s border. That would destroy what’s left of a landmark 1997 agreement between NATO and Russia, which stipulates that the two sides are not enemies and would not keep a permanent military presence in those states.
It’s certainly true that Russia has already violated the agreement, and that the security environment has changed dramatically since 1997, due to Putin’s aggressions. But Putin’s greatest fear has been encroachment by NATO. There’s no telling how he will react if he sees his paranoid nightmare becoming a reality. That’s the reason US allies in Europe are nervous about the plan. They view it as a step away from a diplomatic resolution with Moscow. We should heed their advice, if for no other reason than to keep the allies on the same page.
There are better ways to show resolve and reassure the Baltic states that the United States is serious about its commitment to Europe’s collective security. Bolstering the bases we already have in Italy and Germany, expanding NATO’s Rapid Reaction Force, and continuing to engage in military training exercises would be wiser moves. The US military has already stationed 150 troops in each of the Baltic States and in Poland since April of last year.
Russia’s immediate target right now isn’t the Baltics, but Ukraine. US, British, and Canadian troops are training the Ukrainian army but not providing lethal military assistance. If Russia really is preparing for a full-scale invasion, tanks in Latvia and nonlethal assistance are not going to help. In that case, it might make more sense to provide light weapons to the Ukrainian army.
But it’s worth remembering that Russia and Ukraine will always be neighbors. Although Russia has behaved in a shocking manner, Kiev is not blameless. Poroshenko has not held up his side of the Minsk agreements either, and his surprising appointment of ex-Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili — a persona non grata in Moscow — as governor of the Odessa region was an unnecessary irritant. At the end of the day, Ukraine and Russia must find a way to live together that both sides accept.

NATO Refocuses on the Kremlin, Its Original Foe

New York Times,  June 23, 2015


CAMP ADAZI, Latvia — After years of facing threats far beyond its borders,NATO is now reinvigorating plans to confront a much larger and more aggressive threat from its past: Moscow.

This seismic shift has been apparent in military training exercises in this former Soviet republic, which is now a NATO member and on the alliance’s eastern flank, bordering Russia.

On a recent day, Latvian soldiers conducted a simulated attack on dug-in enemy positions in a pine forest here as two United States A-10 attack planes roared overhead and opened fire with 30-millimeter cannons.

Two days before, a B-52 dropped nine dummy bombs radioed in by the Latvians on the ground — all just 180 miles from the Russian border.


Lithuanian and American soldiers at the start of the exercise, intended to show resolve on the new front between NATO and Russia. CreditBryan Denton for The New York Times

“If the Russians sense a window of opportunity, they will use it to their advantage,” said Estonia’s chief of defense, Lt. Gen. Riho Terras, who recently mobilized 13,000 soldiers across his tiny country in a separate exercise. “We must make sure there’s no room for miscalculation.”

The military drills that unfolded here, part of a series of exercises planned over coming months to demonstrate the alliance’s readiness to confront Russia, emphasized the depth of the challenge facing an alliance that for a quarter of a century turned its attention to threats much farther afield.

After years of reducing military spending and conducting expeditionary missions beyond NATO’s border, from the Balkans to Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa, the alliance has had to reinvigorate plans that commanders and political leaders had largely consigned to the past.

This week, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter is traveling through several NATO capitals before sitting down on Wednesday and Thursday with other defense ministers in Brussels to debate how to counter a resurgent Russia.

On Tuesday in Tallinn, Estonia, Mr. Carter confirmed plans to positionheavy American tanks and other weaponry in the Baltics and Eastern Europe for the first time. The plan has prompted unease in some quarters ahead of the NATO defense ministers’ meetings, and strong protests from Moscow that coincided with an announcement by President Vladimir V. Putin that he was bolstering Russia’s arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons.

Revising Strategies

Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and its role in the war in eastern Ukraine, has already resulted in what NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, recently called “the biggest reinforcement of NATO forces since the end of the Cold War.”

It has involved a marked increase in training rotations on territory of the newer NATO allies in the east, and increased patrols of the air and seas from the Baltic to the Black Sea intended to counter an increase of patrols by Russian forces around NATO’s periphery.

Most of those are temporary deployments. But in February, NATO announced that it would set up six new command units within the Eastern allies and create a 5,000-strong rapid reaction “spearhead” force.

With the leaders of NATO’s 28 members scheduled to gather in Warsaw for an important summit meeting next year, the alliance is now considering what other measures are needed to adjust its forces, to increase spending that had plummeted as part of a “peace dividend,” and to revisit NATO’s military strategy and planning.

“During the Cold War, we had everything there in the neighborhood we needed to respond,” said Julianne Smith, a former defense and White House official who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “It’s all atrophied. We haven’t gone through the muscle movements of a conventional attack in Europe for decades.”

NATO’s steps, and its deliberations over future ones, have exposed internal tensions within the alliance over the extent of the threat Mr. Putin’s Russia poses. That, in turn, has colored the debate over how vigorously the allies should prepare.

Some view the threat as imminent, while others view Russia as less a threat than the instability, the flood of migrants and the rise of extremism emanating from North Africa. A recent poll suggested that residents in some member nations were far from committed to the notion of going to war to protect the other NATO allies — let alone Ukraine.

NATO’s response to the events in Ukraine has required a shift in strategic thinking as profound as the one that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the alliance’s main adversary suddenly no longer existed. For years, the Russia that emerged from the Soviet ruins seemed destined to be a partner if not an ally, something Mr. Putin himself did not rule out when he first came to office in 2000.

“I don’t think we’re in the Cold War again — yet,” said James G. Stavridis, the retired admiral and NATO military commander, now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, who served on a destroyer as a “thorough seagoing cold warrior” when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

He added, however, “I can kind of see it from here.”

While some do not rule out a conventional confrontation — something Mr. Putin himself rejected as “insane” — others point to the potential threats shrouded in subterfuge and subversion, much like Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and its continuing support for ethnic Russians in the war in eastern Ukraine, which has claimed more than 6,000 lives.

A confidential assessment of the risk of Russia destabilizing the Baltic States is expected to be presented at the NATO meetings this week. But the potential for such an attack has implicitly been the focus of much of the training and planning going on in places like this.

In private and in public, some officials and commanders argue that much more is needed to reverse two decades of policy, particularly to shore up an eastern flank that to many, especially here in the Baltics, feels gravely exposed to a Russian attack.

Poland’s defense minister, Tomasz Siemoniak, said that NATO had to undertake a “strategic adaptation” that accounted for the fact that Russia’s hostility toward the alliance was “a change in climate and not a summer storm.” It is time, he said, to consider significant deployments of heavy weapons in Eastern Europe, brushing aside the worry that such a move would provoke Russia.

“I think the caution expressed by some of our European allies is excessive,” Mr. Siemoniak said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington in May.

Some believe that stoking divisions among the allies is simply another of the tactics that Mr. Putin has employed.

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of United States Army forces in Europe, said in an interview, “I am sure they want to create doubts in the minds of some members of the alliance that the other 27 members won’t be there for them.”

The rising tensions between NATO and Russia coincide with a sharp decline in the United States military presence in Europe: to 64,000 troops now, including just 27,000 soldiers, from more than 400,000 at the height of the Cold War. Other nations’ militaries have shrunk, too. Britain now has a smaller army than during the Crimean War in the mid-19th century.

The notion of a more robust NATO has encountered inertia that has built over the last two decades. The “peace dividend” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union could prove hard to reverse, said David Ochmanek, a former senior Pentagon official who is a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation.

NATO’s militaries drew down so precipitously that it has become a regular challenge for members to maintain military spending at 2 percent of gross domestic product, a level considered minimal for effective defense.


Saber Strike training exercise in the Baltics and Poland that ended Friday." data-mediaviewer-credit="Bryan Denton for The New York Times" itemprop="url" itemid="http://static01.nyt.com/images/2015/06/24/world/europe/24military-inline1/24military-inline1-articleLarge.jpg" style="height: auto; max-width: 100%; display: block; width: 600px;">

Lithuanian troops dig in defensive positions during the annual Saber Strike training exercise in the Baltics and Poland that ended Friday. CreditBryan Denton for The New York Times

At the same time, few of the NATO allies are looking to increase military spending significantly. “Nobody in any military establishment is looking for more bills to pay right now,” Mr. Ochmanek said.

A Message of Solidarity

Even before the annexation of Crimea, NATO had watched Russia warily.

“NATO has reduced defense spending over a long period of time, especially European NATO allies,” Mr. Stoltenberg said in an interview in Washington in May. “Russia has increased substantially. So they have modernized their forces. They have increased their capacity. And they are exercising more. And they are also now starting to use nuclear rhetoric, nuclear exercises and nuclear operations as part of their nuclear posture. This is destabilizing.”

While American officials say that exercises like the one at this former Soviet tank base are mainly to allow NATO and Baltic States to hone their training together, they are also intended to send a strong message of solidarity.

More than 6,000 troops from 14 allied nations — three times the number of soldiers that joined the same exercise two years ago, before Russia’s invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine — conducted the annual Saber Strike training exercise in the Baltics and Poland that ended Friday.

On a brilliant, sunny day this month, 150 Latvian infantry members fought across a sandy pine barren to seize locations defended by Atropians, a fictional foe played by Gurkha soldiers of the British Army. Both sides traded simulated artillery and rocket fire, before the Latvians dashed from the woods and used smoke screens as cover to seize their targets. The A-10 attack planes roared overhead. But what really snapped back the necks of Baltic and other European observers was the B-52 bomber, on call for any additional strikes.

Latvia’s defense chief, Lt. Gen. Raimonds Graube, looked up admiringly at the warplanes and dismissed any suggestion that a NATO exercise with B-52s might provoke the Russians, as some European officials have complained. “Our soldiers must be ready to train on an international level,” he said.

For a United States military that has spent nearly two decades fighting insurgencies in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the tensions with Russia have young soldiers, many born after the Soviet Union collapsed, learning new skills and brushing up on an old adversary.

“It’s not lost on me or my soldiers where we’re operating,” said Lt. Col. Chad Chalfont, an Army battalion commander training at a former Soviet base in Rukla, Lithuania.

Colonel Chalfont, whose father served as an Air Force officer in an underground nuclear missile silo during the Cold War, said American and Lithuanian troops drilled together on mundane but critical tasks like talking on the same radio frequency. Lithuanian infantry troops also learn more complex skills, like operating together with American battle tanks for the first time in dense pine forests.

The threat to the Baltic nations, at least in theory, is acute. For the Pentagon, Mr. Ochmanek of RAND has run war games trying to anticipate how to defend the Baltics in particular, the most immediate concern for the alliance. “It’s not realistic to think they could defend themselves against a determined Russian attack,” he said.

There is a hope that deterrence will suffice to prevent Russia from moving, but many fear that Mr. Putin’s government could seek to undermine the allies by subterfuge, as Russia did in Crimea and is doing in Ukraine.


Lithuanian soldiers placed trip wires and flares in the woods surrounding the defensive positions they shared with American troops before the next day's attack by German soldiers in the exercise.CreditBryan Denton for The New York Times

More likely than any ground attack from Russian troops, NATO officials say, would be some kind of cyberstrike or information warfare assault, two of the critical components of a hybrid warfare style that is central to a new Russian military strategy unveiled in 2013 by Russia’s chief of the general staff, Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov.

The doctrine explicitly acknowledged the use of “military means of a concealed character, including carrying out actions of informational conflict and the actions of special operations forces.”

For those on NATO’s front lines, the doctrine appears all too real. This month, unknown hackers targeted the website of the Lithuanian Army leadership, posting false information about NATO exercises in the Baltics and Poland, a Lithuanian Defense Ministry spokesman said.

Lithuanian officials said the false messages included a report that the NATO exercise was a pretext for a possible annexation of the Russian region of Kaliningrad, which lies between Lithuania and Poland.

All of this is on NATO’s mind as it takes interim measures to deal with the threat.

Asked what steps his military would take if Russian “little green men” tried to sneak across his border, General Terras, Estonia’s chief of defense, said bluntly, “We will shoot them.”

Feeling Vulnerable

Bravado aside, Baltic commanders and civilian leaders said they were scrambling to improve and enlarge their militaries and other security forces.

These countries are overcoming the years when Russia was not considered an enemy, but was still eyed warily. When Baltic nations joined NATO more than a decade ago, they were encouraged to develop niche specialties rather than territorial defense, which was no longer thought necessary. Latvia, for instance, developed capabilities like explosive demolition experts and ground spotters to call in strikes — all skills that filled needs in NATO missions outside Europe, such as Afghanistan.

Now, with standing forces of about 5,000 to 10,000 troops, the Baltics feel vulnerable despite being members of NATO. They have no tanks, no air forces to speak of, and only patrol craft and minesweepers to ply coastal waters. Each country is now rushing to correct this shortfall.

The Estonians have a “defense league” that is made up of about 30,000 civilians and includes farmers, carpenters, lawyers and other professions. They engage in basic infantry training once a month, receive arms from the government, and in the event of an invasion would be called to active duty to be commanded by professional soldiers.

Juozas Olekas, Lithuania’s defense minister, said in an interview that the government was developing a more comprehensive self-defense plan coordinating across several government agencies. The army will soon add some 3,000 new conscripts.

In Latvia, Defense Minister Raimonds Vejonis said that with the Baltics’ bitter history under Soviet occupation, the public and the government were only too aware of Mr. Putin’s attempts to use propaganda and military might in Ukraine to intimidate NATO’s smallest members. “We will stay united because if we don’t, NATO will die,” said Mr. Vejonis, who will become Latvia’s president in July.

Not all of the NATO allies are as ardent. While there has been striking unanimity against Russia’s actions in Ukraine — separately, the European Union extended its sanctions against Russia this week — divisions remain.

“There’s a hope this is all a bump in the road and with a little bit of tweaking we can get back to the status quo,” the former American ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, said in a telephone interview. “In my view, that’s naïve. Putin’s not going to change his position, and he’s not going away. You’ve got to be in this for the long haul.”

Page 1 ... 8 9 10 11 12 ... 13 Next 5 Entries »